Book Review- Dark Nights of the Soul

All of us go through periods of suffering. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss, an illness, a crisis of faith, all of which can crush our spirits and cover our lives in darkness. It’s not only these unpleasant times that will come to define us, it’s also how we respond when these times come. Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. The book title inspired by the 16th Century Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross’ poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”

At the very beginning, Moore informs us that getting through a dark night of the soul is not for those looking for a quick fix:

“If your main interest in life is health, you may quickly try to overcome the darkness. But if you are looking for meaning, character, and personal substance, you may discover that a dark night has many important gifts for you.”1

Moore adds that we can sense a time of growth and preparation during difficult times:

“Sometimes in your darkness you may sense that something is incubating in you or that you are being prepared for life. You are going somewhere, even though there are no external signs of progress.”2

Moore brilliantly draws upon the struggles of patients in his years of therapy practice and how they navigated through their dark nights. Moore also weaves in the tale of Jonah from the Bible, tales from mythology, and the real life struggles of writers Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and others, who found meaning in the midst of their suffering.

Moore’s theme throughout the book is to guide us in how to properly frame our dark nights, embrace them, and seek to growth from the darkness.

“Think of a dark night as part of organic living. To avoid it would be like choosing only artificial food that never spoils. As a natural person, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions and go through many different kinds of experiences. Over the course of your lifetime, parts of you will grow and blossom, some will rot. To be sad, grieving, struggling, lost, or hopeless is part of natural human life. By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.”3

Moore touches upon the dark nights that can occur in life, relationships, spirituality, creativity, health, and aging, often using non-clinical methods, to help the reader understand how to get through the dark times. One way to navigate the dark nights, according to Moore, is to develop a philosophy of life, which he defines as:

“A philosophy of life is a bundle of wisdom you have gathered from your reading and experience. It is not a rigid ideology that allows no development and complexity. It’s a living thing, a developing idea about life that belongs to you alone.”4

I know on a personal level that whenever I find myself going through a period of suffering, I question the purpose of said suffering. I contemplate the purpose of my existence and my lot in life. However, Moore puts it succinctly, while drawing upon a them of Stoic philosophy:

“Where you fit in the scheme of things is not your choice. Your job is to deal honestly and generously with the fate given to you. It may be a brief life of sickness. You may be the most ordinary of people. On the other hand, you may be called sometime in your life to make an extraordinary act. Your task is to be prepared for the invitation offered, the chance to define yourself by an important choice.”5

I find Dark Nights of the Soul to be an excellent read and I recommend it to anyone facing a difficult time in your life.

1Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals.New York: Gotham Books (2004): xiii.

2Ibid, 4.

3Ibid, 7.

4Ibid, 32.

5Ibid, 298.

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Book Review- Rising Strong

rising strong
Image from Random House Books

Shame, regret, failure, and vulnerability are words that can trigger visceral reactions and bring to the surface long suppressed emotions. However, if we are to move forward in life, we must come to terms with these issues. In her book Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brene Brown provides a masterful roadmap on how to recover from life’s setbacks.

In Rising Strong, Brown draws from her experience as a social worker, academic researcher, wife, mother, and stories from everyday people all the way to Fortune 500 companies to weave a tapestry that reflects the simultaneous beauty and mess that is life. Rising Strong is more than a conventional self-help book, as Brown encourages her readers to dig deep and “rumble” with the issues at hand and to live through the process on a daily basis.

(If you are unfamiliar with Brene’ Brown, I would encourage you to pull up her TEDx Talks on YouTube).

All of us fall and fail in life, but Brown states the importance of vulnerability, which she defines as, “The willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome -is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy.”1 Even during the times we fall flat on our faces, the rising strong process reveals to us who we are and allows us to draw upon our inner strength.

While Brown discusses embracing the failure, she warns against downplaying the emotional effects of it: “To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important- toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.”2

Early on in the book, Brown outlines the Rising Strong process, which she uses throughout the process. “The goal of the process is to rise from our falls, overcome our mistakes, and face hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness into our lives.”3 The other elements of the Rising Strong process includes what Brown calls “The Reckoning,” “The Rumble,” and “The Revolution,” which involve recognizing how emotions and feelings influence our behavior, owning our stories, and writing a new ending, respectively.

If you are serious about making changes in your life and you are willing to do the dirty work, I highly recommend Rising Strong. Brown lays down the gauntlet for a life changing challenge, as I saw it in light of my own recent life events concerning my health, divorce, and starting over.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Random House (2015): xvii.

Ibid, xxv.

Ibid, 37.

Book Review “Football for a Buck”

Jeff Pearlman’s book, Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL is a fascinating read that brilliantly weaves in multiple narratives of an upstart football league, politics, and larger than life personalities of players, coaches, and owners.

The USFL, aka The United States Football league, was in operation for 1983-1985 and was a spring American football alternative to the NFL. Pearlman’s research is thorough and describes how the idea for the USFL actually dated back to 1961, when New Orleans business owner David Dixon conceived of a spring football league. However, it wasn’t until the early 1980s before his idea came to fruition.

The USFL had teams in established NFL territories such as Houston (the Gamblers), Tampa Bay (the Bandits), Philadelphia (the Stars), and Chicago (the Blitz) to name a few. There were also teams in other cities where there was no NFL presence: Jacksonville (the Bulls), Memphis (the Showboats), Orlando (the Renegades), and San Antonio (the Gunslingers). The USFL played an 18 game regular schedule compared to the NFL’s 16 game regular season schedule.

Pearlman’s book has many stories of the gross mismanagement and incompetence of multiple USFL franchises, but teams were not short on talent. Four players from the USFL- quarterbacks Steve Young and Jim Kelly, defensive end Reggie White, and offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman went on to have hall of fame careers in the NFL. The USFL also managed to snag three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners away from the NFL- running back Herschel Walker, quarterback Doug Flutie, and running back Mike Rozier. In many ways, the USFL was ahead of its time. Several USFL innovations- a salary cap to control team spending, an instant replay challenge system, and the two point conversion have been adopted by the NFL during the last three decades.

The USFL was not without its growing pains, but the league tried to do too much too fast. Pearlman’s book shows how politics and greed led to the USFL’s downfall. The politics has an effect on our world today. Donald Trump, the current President of the United States, purchased the New Jersey Generals and was instrumental in convincing team owners to play a fall schedule in order to compete head on with the NFL. The move lead to the USFL filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, in which the USFL won, but received $1 in damages. One dollar. The USFL closed its doors prior to the start of the 1986 season.

Overall, I enjoyed Football for a Buck, as it combined two of my interest- history and American football. Pearlman does a great job in bringing parallels of the USFL’s politics into our current political environment and he also focuses on stories of lesser known USFL players. I would recommend Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL for anyone interested in sports, history, and politics.

Book Review- Deceptions and Myths of the Bible

book review
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I was looking through the bargin section of my favorite bookstore several years ago and came across a copy of Lloyd M. Graham’s Deceptions and Myths of the Bible. The book was only a few dollars, so I bought it on a lark because it sounded interesting. However, ended up neglected on the bookshelf until I finished reading it this week.

The book jacket states this of the author: “Lloyd M. Graham is a psuedonym. Because of his controversial writings, he does not want his identity revealed. He is a biblical scholar and student of mythology.”

Deceptions and Myths of the Bible is supposed to be an in-depth look at the origins of the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity, yet the “biblical scholar” does not list a bibliography of his sources,which puts his credibility in doubt at the start.

Graham’s basic premise is that the power hungry priestly classes cobbled together the Bible from the mythologies of ancient cultures, including India, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome and passed off this mythological stew to the widely ignorant masses as “the word of God.” In his criticsim, Graham also incorporates New Age terminology, occult symbology, misapplies the meaning of evolution and the term “involution.” What is supposed to be serious scholarship is thinly disguised venemous and vitrolic speech aimed at the Jews, the Catholic church, and religion in general.

If you have studied any type of biblical literary criticism or read the arguments that the Bible was stolen from pagan sources, you will recognize many of Graham’s arguments. For example, he points out that the story of Jesus has parallels to Osiris, Krishna, Mithra, and others. The same goes for Noah and the flood, Moses, Adam and Eve, and so on and so forth. If this is a topic that interest you, then there are much better scholars out there to explore.

Overall I did not find Graham’s case compelling. Though he does quote some people in the book, the lack of a bibliography as I said, hinders Graham’s credibility. Why did Graham not fully list his sources? Is he trying to hide something while trying to uncover something else? I believe it is healthy to examine what we believe and why we believe it, but Deceptions and Myths of the Bible would not be the place I would start.

Book Review- The Art of Living

In a continuing series, I am reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

Epictetus’ book, The Art of Living, is an incredible philosophical book that gives the reader practical insight on how to live a virtuous life of inner peace, no matter the circumstances we face in life.

Epictetus (55AD-135AD) was a slave who took an interest in philosophy. Epictetus later gained his freedom and became a teacher of Stoicism. Epictetus today is regarded as one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism, along with Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Seneca. The essence of Stoicism is that it is not what happens to you, but how you respond that counts. The Stoics, especially Epictetus, write that we should focus solely on what is in our control and not worry about what is not in our control. You do not have to be a philosophy major to understand Epictetus, as he presents his philosophy in a practical and straightforward manner.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”[1]

Epictetus then distinguishes what is and is not in our control:

“Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are direct subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.”[2]

“Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.”[3]

Epictetus also stresses the importance of not getting caught up in other peoples’ business and stick with what is our concern because we will not be forced to do anything we do not want to do. Another aspect Epictetus emphasizes is the importance of managing our perceptions, or how we see and interpret events. It is important to gauge these perceptions by what is within our control and what is not in our control.

“From now own, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’ And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself not to worry about it.”[4]

Other Brilliant Quotes from Epictetus

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”[5]

“It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties will arise- for they are part of the divine order too- inner peace will still be possible.”[6]

“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source.”[7]

“Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control.”[8]

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”[9]

“Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance.”[10]

The Art of Living has been a very influential book for me as I have journeyed through the last eighteen months of my life. I have learned and applied many aspects of Epictetus’ wisdom to my own life, which has enhanced my faith and navigated me through difficult choices. I have also found parallels in Scripture, which makes this book compatible for Christians as well.

If you truly want to live a happy life, it all starts with you. Be content in all circumstances and realize that everything happens for a reason. We may not know the reason, but we have been assigned this season of our lives. Make the most of it. Focus internally and do not worry about the externals. God bless you.

[1] Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. A New Intrepretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 3.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 12.

[8] Ibid, 16.

[9] Ibid, 17.

[10] Ibid, 24.

Book Review: The Practice of the Presence of God

In an ongoing series, I will be reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

If you desire to be a better athlete, musician, public speaker, writer, artist, chef, or anything else in life, you need continuous practice. Natural ability and talent can go so far, but to further hone one’s skills, one must take the time to practice. Brother Lawrence in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, humbly and brilliantly shows us how to increase God’s presence in our lives through our daily practice of living.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691) was born Nicholas Herman and served God as a lay-brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France. The Practice of the Presence of God is a combination of conversations, letters, and spiritual maxims Brother Lawrence had with various people and was compiled and published after his death by his friend, Joseph de Beaufort.

Brother Lawrence states, “The presence of God is the concentration of the soul’s attention on God, remembering that He is always present.”[1]

The principles put forth are so simple and profound, we can easily overlook them in the overly busy, overly frustrating, and overstimulating days that make up our Twenty-First Century lives. You do not need advanced theology to understand that God is omnipresent, always with us, but do we take the time to acknowledge Him during our day?

“Brother Lawrence insisted that, to be constantly aware of God’s presence, it is necessary to form the habit of continually talking with Him throughout each day. To think that we must abandon conversation with Him in order to deal with the world is erroneous. Instead, as we nourish our souls by seeing God in His exaltation, we will derive a great joy at being His.”[2]

No matter if he worked in the monastery kitchen, the monastery shoe repair shop, or just going into town to get supplies, Brother Lawrence dedicated everything He did to God. It was out of his love for God that Brother Lawrence sought to please God, not to be rewarded, but to show adoration for God’s grace in his life.

“He [Brother Lawrence] was content doing the smallest chore if he could do it purely for the love of God.”[3]

We often think that we need to do great things for God in order for Him to love us. However, Brother Lawrence insisted that we can bring God and ourselves joy in the simplest of chores. Imaging cooking for your family and how often that is a thankless chore we can come to dread. But, what if we were to view cooking for our family as a way to show God thankfulness for the family that we have? What if we were to take a lesson from Brother Lawrence and thank God before we began a chore and thank Him afterwards for the opportunity?

“Brother Lawrence declared that he felt much closer to God in his day-to-day activites than most people ever believed to be possible.”[4]

Another way Brother Lawrence practiced God’s presence was to speak to Him openly and frankly, as if he was talking to his best friend. It was said that Brother Lawrence went to God in all matters great and small and discussed them with Him.

Of course we know our modern world is full of distractions- smart phones, the Internet, television, movies, video games, and other sources of entertainment. These distractions, if we allow them to, will take our energy and focus away from enjoying God’s presence. According to Brother Lawrence, we must direct our thoughts toward God and God’s presence. If we do get distracted, we can simply repent and begin again. Overall, The Practice of the Presence of God shows a tremendous spiritual depth at the relationship between the Lord and Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence describes how God had blessed him so much when he made the habit of seeking God’s presence out of love and devotion. What if we were to praise God just because He is God and has saved us? Are we capable of seeking God without the hope of a material reward? If we practice God’s presence, God will give us the grace and strength we need to overcome life’s difficulties.

Brother Lawrence’s book concludes with the three blessings we receive from God’s presence:

“The first blessing that the soul receives from the practice of the presence of God is that its faith is livelier and more active in our lives. This is particularly true in difficult times, since it obtains the grace we need to deal with temptation and to conduct ourselves in the world…Second, the practice of the presence of God strengthens us in hope. Our hope increases as our faith penetrates God’s secrets through practice of our holy exercise…The third blessing is that this practice causes the will to rejoice at being set apart from the world, setting it aglow with the fire of holy love. This is because the soul is always with God, who is a consuming fire, who reduces into powder whatever is opposed to Him.”[5]

For anyone who is seeking a deeper relationship with God or is starting out in a relationship with God, I would encourage you to read Brother Lawrence’s words because they, like Scripture, have much to say regarding a more spiritual life. God bless you all.

 

[1] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. New Kensington PA: Whitaker House (1982): 67.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 21.

[5] Ibid, 71-72.